Graphics: Graphic presentation: Nobel Prize winners by country of origin and gender

Gender equality is one of the defining issues of our time. The Nobel Prize shows that science is far from it.

What do Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen, Emil von Behring, Sully Prudhomme and Henry Dunant have in common? They all got 1901 when they were first awarded Nobel prize They received – they are all male, old and white.

One would think that after the liberation and feminist movements, the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2021 would be more diverse. But still women hardly get attention in scientific fields.


This year’s award ceremony was no different: the Nobel Prize in Physics went to three men, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Medicine went to two men, and the Nobel Prize for Literature also went to one man, Abd al-Razzaq Gharna. Only in the Nobel Peace Prize was a woman in addition to Dimitri Morato with journalist Maria Ressa.

“This year is already very disappointing,” says Andrea Luther, Acting President of the Association Center for Competences for Women in Science and Research (CEWS) in Cologne. I followed closely the Nobel Prize and was visibly disappointed that no women had ever been awarded a prize in the scientific field. “It wasn’t like there wasn’t any candidate,” Luther says. In recent years, the proportion of women researchers has increased worldwide, but only men have been awarded prizes.

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What is also evident year after year is the dominance of mainly American scientists, but also British and German scientists who have won Nobel Prizes in scientific fields.

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I certainly suppose the men who received the award deserved it. But there were women who deserved it. “This was also the case in the past. “Lise Meitner, for example, played a key role in the discovery of nuclear fission. However, since she was a woman and a Jew in Germany, she was not taken into account and her colleague Otto Hahn took her instead.”

Another example is Jocelyn Bell Burnell. An astrophysicist discovered the signal from a neutron star in 1967. “But her PhD supervisor was awarded a Nobel Prize,” Luther explains. In other areas, too, women were ignored and men benefited instead.

Women’s achievements will not be recognized

According to Luther, women’s achievements are not noticed, recognized, or seen. It was precisely this lack of visibility that showed itself in 2018 with the Nobel laureate in physics Donna Strickland: “Only after winning the Nobel was her biography published on Wikipedia.”

Andrea Luther is the Acting Chair of the Center for Competence on Women in Science and Research (CEWS).

Photo: Christian Cole

There are women in science, but there are still many more men. For Luther, this is a social and structural problem. “In many countries, including Germany, the traditional view of the family is still firmly established: the woman takes care of the children, which means that family and work cannot be combined.” These stereotypes will only slowly be dismantled.

Professional structures in science based on the principle of “all or nothing”

In addition, there are professional structures in science in many countries that follow the principle of “all or nothing”. “It means something like: Either I get my professor’s degree or I have to live on the fourth hartz,” Luther says. This leads to the fact that many women – and sometimes men as well – drop out of school because they do not want to engage in these professional structures.

In addition to structural and social problems, there are still fewer women in the sciences due to the problem of equity. “Science provides access to resources and career opportunities and when there are mechanisms of exclusion, this is a matter of fairness.” Luther says it will be very important to bring more diversity to the research teams. “Because if you don’t look at it from a different perspective, it will show some results that are not representative of society.”

Initiatives and programs for the advancement of women in the field of science

But what can you do about it? There are several concrete measures: In Germany, federal and state programs for female professors aim to increase the number of female professors on the one hand and to strengthen equality structures in universities on the other.

“A lot has already been accomplished,” Luther says. In Germany and the European Union, more women were promoted about 30 years ago. Universities’ gender policy should also help attract more women to research. The so-called “knowledge of gender” is also important to Luther. According to Luther, people have to think about structural discrimination and gender stereotypes. “As a woman or a man, you don’t do it automatically, you have to think about it first.”

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